Love is Strange, the new film from director Ira Sachs, is very much a product of its time. Existing in the intersection between the rising tide of legalized gay marriage and the cutthroat nature of a post 2008 financial crisis housing market, the film tells the story of Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina). Ben and George had been partners living together for 40 years, and finally have the opportunity to tie the knot legitimately under the eyes of New York state as the film opens. The happy ceremony has unfortunate consequences, as George is quickly and unceremoniously fired from his job as choir director of a private Catholic high school, and the couple can no longer afford the mortgage of the apartment they have lived in for twenty years and only recently managed to own. Homeless and financially crippled, they turn to their friends and family for some temporary help until George can get back on his feet (Ben’s lifestyle as a retired painter does not bring in the cash in any real way). Dreading the concept of living outside the city despite the possibility of comfortable living upstate, Ben and George find themselves forced to separate, with Ben moving in with his nephew Elliot (Darren E. Burrows) and wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) as well as their teenage son Joey (Charlie Tahan). George sleeps on the couch of their good friends from their building, a couple of hard partying gay cops. Neither place to stay is a good one, and both must adjust to the added stress in their own ways.
Class plays a foundational role in the machinations of Love is Strange. Ben and George are in their situation in part because neither they nor their social circle would ever truly consider shipping them outside of New York, despite it clearly being the best option. All of the problems these characters face are entirely their own fault. A cynic might consider this a barrier for entry, the sort of elitism that undid Blue Jasmine for those (such as this reviewer) who could not jibe with that film. Full credit, then, must be placed at the feet of not just Sachs, but his cast that this is almost never the case. The film is a poster child for how a relationship with a friend or relative can deteriorate when they find themselves forced into tight quarters under the same roof. Lithgow and his family get the most screen time, which is a logical choice considering how much more interesting they are than what Molina is enduring. Whereas George must simply deal with loud parties that never end (a legitimate issue in its own right), Ben has to share a room and bunk beds with his adolescent great-nephew who is none too pleased about the situation and going through his own problems as he matures into young adulthood. Ben must content with a growing boy in an awkward phase, an overworked absentee father and the over-stressed writer mother who feels too concerned with making Ben comfortable to manage her own life.
An immediate takeaway from watching Love is Strange is the warm, cozy blanket that is Alfred Molina. Molina works often, but it still feels like it is not often enough. The look on his face when he realizes he will be losing his job, the shame when he lets down his partner, the moment he is driven to the end of his rope and forces himself back into the arms of Ben for solace, it is all so effortless and emotionally true. There is a high degree of difficulty to a performance like this, a small valley between maudlin and uncaring or insincere, and Molina hits that bullseye with precision. Lithgow’s performance is arguably a bit more familiar, finding the sort of notes that can often be seen in roles like this, but his prowess as an actor is more than enough to undermine any concerns of cliche. Additionally strong is Marisa Tomei’s beset upon wife, constantly interrupted from her writerly duties by her rebellious son and the conflict with Ben. The family drama is deeply engaging; the son may possibly be a bit overly petulant, but the relationship with a male friend and the confusion surrounding it (and how that may relate to Ben) is fascinating.
Love is Strange is not a perfect film, in part because of the slightly worn carpet that is Ben’s character, in part because of the familiar plot movements, and in part because of a paper thin piece of deus ex machina that shows up at the beginning of the third act and pushes the film into the realm of the gauche in a borderline unforgivable manner. That moment is the only one that breaks the film’s spell, as its charm and its performances act like a beacon in the haze and do excellent work in smoothing out the wrinkles of a plot that is a tad too frictionless to exist in the real world. Sachs is unconcerned with his plotting, focused much more on the interpersonal relationships of Ben and George, as well as their family and friends. It is a choice that can lead to problems, but Sachs’ choice to focus on what he believes matters is Love is Strange’s saving grace. He is free to buckle down on the aspects that make the film shine. Those relationships are what will last in the mind of the audience, and that audience will be treated with a touching love story for the modern world anchored by two world-class actors at the top of their games.